How to Catch Smallmouth Bass

Catch these freshwater fighters in any kind of water
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smallmouth bass
The author with a stud smallie. Photo by Joe Cermele

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Smallmouth bass are brutes. Pound for pound, they are one of the strongest and most aggressive fish that swim in U.S. freshwater. Their fight is one the key reasons why anglers love them so much, but the power and acrobatics are far from their only perk. The variety of places they live make them even more popular. To help you get in on the action, I’ll detail out the basics of how to catch smallmouth bass. 

Smallmouth can be found in everything from small creeks to mighty rivers, to neighborhood lakes, to vast impoundments. They like rocky bottoms and mud bottoms. They like vegetation and sparse flats. Because they’re adapted to so many environments, the best way to target them varies quite a bit. This guide, however, will get you on the path to “bronzeback” success no matter which type of water you find them in and which style of gear you prefer to use.

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A smallmouth caught using finesse tactics. Joe Cermele

Quick Smallmouth Fishing Tips

  • Though smallmouth can be caught year-round, early spring and late fall are the best times to catch trophy-class fish.
  • Smallmouth eat a wide variety of forage, so don’t be afraid to use lures you might think are too large or too small to target them.
  • When in doubt, white lures or flies fool smallmouth more consistently than any other lure color.
  • In summer, topwater lures like poppers and Spooks are a top choice for bronzebacks in moving and still water. 
  • Smallies get keyed into aquatic insect hatches just like trout do, making them an excellent target for fly fishermen (check out our guide to the best bass flies).
  • Smallmouth feed heavily in the dark, making nighttime missions a fun new challenge for many anglers. 
  • Smallmouth bass respond particularly well to vertical jigging presentations when found in deep water.
  • In clear water, smallmouth can get line shy, so don’t be afraid to use a very light leader to avoid spooking them.
  • An aggressive lure presentation often makes smallmouth get competitive over the meal, triggering big reaction strikes.
  • Crayfish are one of the smallmouth bass’ primary food sources.

Smallmouth Fishing Gear Tips

Go with Light Line

Unlike largemouth bass that are often found in vegetation-filled, stained water, smallmouth bass thrive in deep, clear lakes and rivers (read our guide to largemouth vs smallmouth bass). As smallies have good eyesight, this can present a challenge to anglers. Using line or leader that’s too heavy can work against you two ways. For starters, the fish can simply see the line. Second, stiff leader can make lures look unnatural. In combination, not paying attention to the leader you use for smallmouth can make for a very frustrating day. 

Because smallmouth fight so hard, many anglers opt for a heavy setup. However, even in waters that routinely produce bass weighing five pounds or more, sometimes you need to scale down to leader testing as little as 6 pounds in order to fool smallies. This is especially true when using small soft-plastic baits that mimic crayfish or leeches. Fluorocarbon leader is a must for smallmouth fishing, as the properties of the material used to create it make it practically vanish underwater. Always carry a selection of leader from 6- to 12-pounds when smallmouth fishing. Start heavier, but if you’re not getting bites, scale back to the lighter leader. Just make sure to adjust your reel’s drag to account for the lighter leader.

Think Fast Rods for Bass

Because smallmouth bass exist in waters ranging from shallow and fast-moving to deep and still, the right rod and reel for targeting them will vary by location. In smaller rivers, as an example, a shorter, light spinning rod might make the most sense. Conversely, in a deep reservoir, you’ll likely want a heavier, longer rod to deliver larger lures. The length and weight of the rod needs to match your water, but one aspect of a good smallmouth setup that carries across all water types is the need for speed.

Read Next: Best Bass Fishing Rods

“Fast” and “slow” refer to a rod’s action, which basically means its stiffness and how easily it bends. Slow rods are soft and bend easily. Fast rods have less give. The stiffer action also makes fast rods more sensitive. They’ll telegraph a light bite to your hand quicker than a slow rod, and this is important, as even big smallmouth will often gently gulp a lure off the bottom. Fast rods also provide a surer hook set, which is critical given how aggressively these fish pull.

Lucky Number Seven Weight

Many people flyfish for largemouth bass, but it’s fair to say that of the two primary bass species in the U.S., smallmouth offer better fly opportunities. This is largely because they live in moving water, but also because they get more tuned into aquatic insect hatches and frequently rise to bugs floating on the surface. Of course, they also eat plenty of baitfish and crayfish below the surface, which are matched with heavier flies than those that float. With that in mind, the best all-around smallmouth fly rod is a seven-weight.

A seven-weight fly rod provides the backbone to throw heavier subsurface flies like Clouser Minnows and crayfish patterns. It is not, however, too heavy to effectively deliver surface flies like poppers and Stimulators. Paired with a floating fly line, there’s nary a smallmouth scenario this outfit couldn’t handle. Best of all, a seven-weight fly rod is light enough that it lets you enjoy the fight of smaller bass. 

Read Next: Best Fly Rods for Bass

Smallmouth Fishing Lure Tips

Smallmouth love to smash jerkbaits.

Photo by Joe Cermele

Keep It Natural

Make no mistake: Loud colors like chartreuse and orange will trigger smallmouth under the right conditions, namely in stained water where visibility is reduced. Most of the time, however, if you’re struggling to choose a color for your soft-plastic lure or jig, it’s hard to go wrong with muted and natural.

Though colors like brown, olive green, and black might not be the most exciting to your eyes, they match a wide range of forage smallmouth routinely devour. Brown, for example, can represent a crayfish or goby. Olive green can also mimic a crayfish or tiny madtom catfish. Regardless of the lure or jig style you’re using, opting for neutral, natural tones is smart, especially when you’re not sure how aggressive the fish are going to be on a given day. If these colors aren’t producing, then you can start playing with wilder, less natural colors to see if a particular pattern will turn them on. 

Read Next: Best Best Smallmouth Bass Lures

Make a Wake

Catching smallmouth bass on topwater lures is one of the most exciting things in fishing. When they eat on the surface, the hit tends to be violent. All manner of surface lures will trigger huge strikes from smallmouth, but lures that create a trailing waking offer a bit of an advantage. 

One of the most used topwaters for smallmouth is the popper. These lures, however, are designed to be worked in short bursts. They throw a little water with their scooped mouths, but, in general, they are meant to be paused between twitches of the rod. Lures like Spooks and Jitterbugs, meanwhile, are retrieved with a steadier cadence. Spooks glide from side to side across the surface, while Jitterbugs lean on a unique lip design to sputter across the water when reeled steadily. In both cases, a trailing wake is created, and smallmouth will follow those wakes right to the target. Wakes especially increase the potency of a topwater lure in low light conditions on cloudy days or in the morning or evening as smallmouth looking up from below can see them more clearly when backlit against a dimmer sky. 

Add a Little Scent

Tube jigs are one of the most potent smallmouth lures year-round. Not only do they mimic a plethora of common bass forage, but they also work at a wide range of speeds. In summer, you might find that aggressively hopping a tube jig off the bottom draws the most strikes. During colder times, shaking that same bait ever so gently as it remains in one place on the bottom can be the ticket. No matter when you’re using a tube, however, they are the perfect lure to spice up with a little scent appeal. 

Rigging a tube requires sliding a specially designed tube jighead into the body of the bait from the rear. But, by smearing some liquid or gel attractant on that jighead, you kill two birds with one stone. Lubricating the jighead allows you to slide it into the body cavity more easily. It may sound hard to believe but depending on the thickness of the soft-plastic material of the tube and the design of the jighead, this can require extra pressure due to friction. Sometimes this can cause baits to tear while you’re trying to seat the jighead properly. The hollow body cavity, however, also holds scent well and doesn’t allow it to wash out too quickly. And when smallmouth are being finicky, that little olfactory cue can make a big difference in getting them to strike. 

Keep Them in Suspension

Hard-plastic jerkbaits are killer for smallmouth bass. They are not, however, all created equal. A good diving jerkbait should suspend, meaning once it reaches its maximum depth it will either float back to the surface at a painfully slow rate or hover in place. This suspension ability is a critical factor in choosing a jerkbait for smallmouth.

Jerkbaits are designed to be worked aggressively with short, fast, whips of the rod tip. Quite often, though, smallmouth attack the lure during a pause when it isn’t moving at all. If your jerkbait floats back to the surface too quickly, an interested bass may not want to rise to attack. On the other hand, if that lure stays in the fish’s face on the pause, the odds go up that it will strike. The Megabass Vision ONETEN has a reputation of being one of the best suspenders right out of the package, but adding lead SuspenDots to any jerkbait will alter its buoyancy and slow its rate of ascent. 

Read Next: How to Fish a Jerkbait Like a Pro

Smallmouth Fishing Tactics

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Low light conditions often make for a good topwater bite.

Photo by Joe Cerm

Nighttime is the Right Time

Many anglers don’t realize that smallmouth bass are nocturnal. Granted, they’re not too active after dark in the colder months, but from late spring through early fall, they’ll happily hunt well after sundown. On highly pressured bodies of water, this is good to know, because they often let their guard down in the dark once most anglers have gone home for the day. 

One of the most effective ways to catch smallmouth at night is with topwater lures or lures that can be worked just a few inches below the surface. The reason lures that ride high in the water column are so effective when the sun is down is because a smallmouth looking up can make out the contrast of the lure against the night sky very clearly as they’re backlit, even on nights when it seems there’s no ambient light at all. After dark, try not to overwork your lures. Incorporate plenty of pauses with baits like Flukes and poppers, and if you’re using a buzzbait or Jitterbug, don’t reel too quickly. Bring them back just fast enough to get the blades spinning and lip sputtering.

Stay on the School

Targeting smallmouth bass in cold water can be extremely challenging. They tend to not want to move very far for a meal, making finesse presentation with soft plastics or jerkbaits that hover in place during a long pause staples for “shoulder season” smallmouth fishing. The good news is that if you catch one smallmouth in cold water, there’s a good chance you’re going to catch a lot more. 

From late fall through early spring, smallmouth bass school up. In rivers you might find them in a deep, slow back eddy. In large bodies of still water, you’ll often find them suspending in deeper water or hugging the bottom. Boating anglers have an advantage during the cold months, as once they locate some fish, they can park right on top of them and attack with a vertical presentation. The hits may be less aggressive than they are at other times of year, but these fish feed year-round. The bottom line is that if you hook a smallmouth in cold water, don’t leave. Assume there are more fish in the same location. 

All Hail the Hellgrammite

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Hellgrammites make great live baits when you can find them. Ryan / Adobe Stock

From common garden worms to shiners, crayfish to leeches, there’s no shortage of live baits that will catch big smallmouth bass. In fact, it can be argued that a simple crayfish under a bobber or nightcrawler soaking on the bottom will often be more effective for these fish than a bunch of fancy lures. There is no live bait, however, that’s more powerful and potent for smallies than hellgrammites — that is, of course, if you can get your hands on some. 

Hellgrammites aren’t winning beauty contests. These larvae of the Dobson fly are rather hideous, actually, featuring long segmented bodies and nasty pinchers that will nip at your fingertips. But as off-putting as these creatures may be, they emit a scent that is downright intoxicating to smallmouth bass. Every once in a while you’ll find live hellgrammites for sale in tackle shops, but expect to pay handsomely for them. Most anglers capture their own with a piece of window screen stretched between two stakes. You position the screen downstream of a rock, flip the rock, and let the contents—hopefully a hellgrammite or two—flush down into the screen. Best of all, hellgrammites are hearty, usually catching two or three bass before getting ripped off the hook or mangled so much they need to be replaced.

Final Thoughts on How to Catch Smallmouth Bass

Now that you’ve got the general idea of how to catch smallmouth bass, gear up and get out on the water. Watching YouTube videos and reading articles is great for research purposes, but that will only get you so far. You’ll learn your most important lessons on your home lake or river.